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University of Southern California

1. Ravi, Sujith. Deciphering natural language.

Degree: PhD, Computer Science, 2011, University of Southern California

Most state-of-the-art techniques used in natural language processing (NLP) are supervised and require labeled training data. For example, statistical language translation requires huge amounts of bilingual data for training translation systems. But such data does not exist for all language pairs and domains. Using human annotation to create new bilingual resources is not a scalable solution. This raises a key research challenge: How can we circumvent the problem of limited labeled resources for NLP applications? Interestingly, cryptanalysts and archaeologists have tackled similar challenges in solving "decipherment problems".; This thesis work aims to bring together techniques from classical cryptography, NLP and machine learning. We introduce a novel approach called "natural language decipherment" that can solve natural language problems without labeled (parallel) data. A wide variety of NLP problems can be formulated as decipherment tasks – for example, in statistical language translation one can view the foreign-language text as a cipher for English. Instead of relying on parallel training data, decipherment uses knowledge of the target language (e.g., English) and large quantities of readily available monolingual source (cipher) data to induce bilingual connections between the source and target languages. Using decipherment techniques, we make headway in attacking a hierarchy of problems ranging from letter substitution decipherment to sequence labeling problems (such as part-of-speech tagging) to language translation. Along the way, we make several key contributions  – novel unsupervised algorithms that search for minimized models during decipherment and achieve state-of-the-art results on a number of important natural language tasks. Unlike conventional approaches, these decipherment methods can be easily extended to multiple domains and languages (especially resource-poor languages), thereby helping to spread the impact and benefits of NLP research. Advisors/Committee Members: Knight, Kevin (Committee Chair), Marcu, Daniel (Committee Member), Chiang, David (Committee Member), Teng, Shang-Hua (Committee Member), Narayanan, Shrikanth S. (Committee Member).

Subjects/Keywords: natural language processing; machine learning; computational decipherment; artificial intelligence; statistics

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APA (6th Edition):

Ravi, S. (2011). Deciphering natural language. (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Southern California. Retrieved from

Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition):

Ravi, Sujith. “Deciphering natural language.” 2011. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California. Accessed December 14, 2019.

MLA Handbook (7th Edition):

Ravi, Sujith. “Deciphering natural language.” 2011. Web. 14 Dec 2019.


Ravi S. Deciphering natural language. [Internet] [Doctoral dissertation]. University of Southern California; 2011. [cited 2019 Dec 14]. Available from:

Council of Science Editors:

Ravi S. Deciphering natural language. [Doctoral Dissertation]. University of Southern California; 2011. Available from: